Panel rules Justice Department wrongly withheld Russia investigation memo


Attorney General William Barr’s Department of Justice improperly withheld portions of an internal memorandum cited by Barr to publicly announce that then-President Donald Trump had not obstructed justice in the investigation into the Russia, a federal appeals committee said Friday.

The department had argued that the 2019 memo represented the private deliberations of its own lawyers before any decision was formalized, and was therefore exempt from disclosure. A federal judge previously disagreed, ordering the Justice Department to provide him to a government transparency group that sued him, prompting an appeal last year by the Biden administration to a higher court .

Attorneys for the Justice Department did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The department can appeal the decision — by a panel of judges from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — to the full court of appeals.

The matter at issue in the case is a March 24, 2019 memorandum from the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, or OLC, and another senior departmental official that was prepared for Barr to assess whether Evidence from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation could support prosecution of the president for obstruction of justice.

Barr said he relied on that opinion in concluding that Trump did not unlawfully obstruct the Russia investigation, which was aimed at determining whether his campaign colluded with Russia to swing the US election. 2016.

The Justice Department gave other documents to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington as part of the group’s lawsuit, but refused to give it the memo. Government lawyers said they had the right under the Public Records Act to withhold the memo because it reflected internal deliberations among lawyers before a formal decision was made on it. Mueller’s evidence showed.

But U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said last year those arguments were dishonest because the memo was prepared for Barr around the same time as a separate Justice Department letter advising Congress. and the public that Barr and other senior department officials had concluded that Trump had not obstructed justice.

The memo noted that “Mueller declined to charge President Trump with obstruction of justice, but also declined to exonerate him” and “recommended that Barr ‘pass judgment’ on whether the evidence constituted an obstruction of justice,” the panel wrote on Friday. The memo also noted that the report’s “failure to take a definitive position could be construed to imply an accusation against President Trump” if the confidential report were made public, the court wrote.

In his letter to Congress, the court noted, Barr said his “decision was made without regard to and is not based on the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.” .

Attorney General William Barr appears before a House Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 9, 2019.

In the parts of the memo that were released, the appeals panel wrote that Justice Department officials “redacted references to a constitutional bar on the prosecution of a sitting president,” including “putting caution that the memorandum’s recommendation would apply only in the absence of a constitutional barrier”. to prosecution” – that is, after the end of Trump’s term.

Consequently, the panel wrote that the justice did not initially reveal “that the analysis of the memorandum assumed that President Trump could not be charged with a crime while in office.”

Instead, the Department, like Mueller, “assumed that the Constitution would prohibit the prosecution of a sitting president,” the court wrote, noting that the fact that the decision had already been made meant that it was not eligible for the public broadcast protection the court had pleaded for.

The government said it had indeed already concluded that there would be no prosecution for obstruction since legal opinions from the Ministry of Justice indicate that a sitting president cannot be charged. But he said the memo addressed a separate issue: whether the evidence Mueller collected could support a finding that Trump obstructed justice.

In its decision on Friday, the appeals panel wrote that while Justice Department officials made it clear to the court that the memo related to Barr’s decision to make a public statement about the report, the rulings in the case could have been different.

“Because the Department did not tie the memorandum to the deliberations of the relevant ruling, the Department failed to justify its reliance on deliberative process privilege,” according to the ruling, by an unsigned panel of judges from the Court of Justice. United States Call for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Barr and other senior officials concluded that Trump’s actions did not constitute obstruction, and the attorney general shared that assessment with Congress shortly after the memo was completed. Mueller’s team did not come to a conclusion about whether Trump obstructed justice.

The appeals judges also noted that their decision was “narrow”, saying it should not be interpreted as “challenging any of our precedents allowing agencies to withhold draft documents related to public messaging “.

Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.




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